The Magic of the Outdoor Kitchen
The outdoor Kitchen is a staple in all our settings, and an essential component of an enabling environment. It is one of my favourite places to play, and incidentally seems to be a favourite with my Class too. It is an area we are constantly reviewing and enhancing in order to keep engagement high, and these are a few of our top tips for sprinkling a bit of magic, and extending play and learning in the Outdoor Kitchen.
Picture your Outdoor Kitchen, can you feel the magic?! The freedom of the outdoors, the sounds of nature, the possibilities for large scale mess and the certainty of exploration all around. I have had many variations on the Outdoor Kitchen, and absolutely love the learning possibilities here, from capacity, quantity and ‘too much!’ to the lovely problem solving of will it fit? What will happen if I add this? Will that smell yuck or yum ?!
The Outdoor Kitchen comes in many forms, the Mud Zone, The Texture Kitchen, The Woodland Café, The Bug Bistro, but the opportunities are the same, the uniqueness comes from us and our wonderful children.
Some of my most favourite teaching sessions have been those using the resources that are naturally found in the outdoors, weeds, grass seeds, herbs, flowers and petals gathered from the garden (but not the growing areas!) The possibilities are endless, but also unique to your own setting. The thing that brings us all together here is the learning opportunities.
The Prime Areas are well addressed, from carrying heavy pots and over spilling pans to mixing, mashing and crushing. Fine and Gross motor skills are naturally challenged. The opportunities for talk are abundant and, as long as the adults are well engaged and are filled with luscious, descriptions and deep, meaningful conversations, the learning will always be valuable. The social aspect of, ‘look what I have discovered’ is a huge driver in supporting both talk and friendship.
The beauty of natural items is that they can be gathered by the children themselves and have wonderful links to seasonal and scientific learning, and, of course magic. Take for example the long grass, there are so many different varieties, textures, and if the time is right, seeds. There is no way I can create such a fascinating resource!
So, on that note, what can we add? Teachers are often asked, I know I am, about how we are extending or challenging. I believe that children will do this themselves and that the essence of this lies within our interactions. However, I also know the importance of the environment as the third teacher. So, to that end there are a few items the Outdoor Kitchen can have to give our playful interactions every opportunity to flourish, challenge and excite.
The staple of any Outdoor Kitchen is the pans, muffin trays and bowls, all of varying sizes of course. But if you add in a few unusual items, mystery objects, those that are not so common in the everyday home, then the play too, will travel into the magical unknown. For example, I recently acquired a silver tea set it is, of course, for tea, but in my Outdoor Kitchen it has become the creator of dragon juice, the provider of Kryptonite, and the attracter of the lover of shiny things (a small wee one who never gets messy, but loved this tea set so much it was worth breaking his six-month avoidance of mess for!) The storytelling this inspired was fabulous. One of my wonderful LSA’s took the initiative and scribed the ‘stories’ from this play, giving us almost a weeks’ worth of child led story times. Magic in abundance!
It’s not just the tea set though, I am a constant collector, and recently found a lovely set of rusty keys from our Site Manager, who is now well aware of my quirky Early Years needs! I had a child in mind; you will have come across his type, always interested in how things connect, and how things effect change, this is most definatly his magic. So, by adding something not usually found in the Outdoor Kitchen, but casually left on the table I was hoping for great things.
The keys did not disappoint, they led the children into a variety of discussions about who they belonged too, if they could use them, and if they did use them, what they could try to unlock. The individuality of learning through play is just golden. My little guy, was in the thick of all of this, sharing his ideas before spending an age, painstakingly scrubbing off the rust on each key; such focus, such perseverance!
Another child negotiated to take the biggest key and spent the morning trying it, not just in all the doors he could find in the unit, but many holes and cracks found about ‘just to see if it is a magic one!’ A little girl, often to be found in the Kitchen, decided quickly that the keys belonged to a giant who would be returning to retrieve them, and to prevent us being eaten busied herself cooking up a storm of giant food to distract him; glorious!
My final ‘love’ when it comes to this, or indeed most areas of provision, is my cast of small characters; not wooden, not hand painted, but in fact old, battered, and plastic (the horror!) but truly very magical!
Without fail, the sneaky addition of a couple of these adds excitement and intrigue; Where have they come from? What do they eat?! Why are they here? and on practical note, plenty of maths; where will they sit? do we have enough bowls? Is that spoon too big?!
They also allow for a spot of clever targeting, Spiderman currently entices my boisterous twin boys to do anything! Pegasus encourages one of my less confident speakers to talk, explaining what is going in in secret whispers to her, and her alone. The Puppies in my Pocket have worked wonders on a bunch of Kitchen hooligans; we can’t have rowdiness in the Kitchen whilst the tiny Puppies are around! The most marvellous magical win here was the Ewok. I have a bunch of Star Wars crazies, their favourite game being light saber battles. But this little fella soon redirected this. As a team, they worked tirelessly to recreate the Ewok Tree city. The detail, the sharing of ideas and the focus was something we had never seen before. And did me a huge favour, as for weeks I had been defending their right to play rough, with the hope that this particular brand of magic would overspill into other areas too. Thank goodness for the Ewok!
So, reflect on your Outdoor Kitchens, what have been your most interesting additions? Consider, in your Early Years world, what is your children’s magic, how do you support and inspire this magic, and mull over the impact when you do.
By Laura Hankinson
I am an Early Years Teacher, and Forest School Leader, and have worked in Schools and Early Years settings for almost twenty years.
Having begun my Early Years journey as a Nursery Nurse I have a strong passion for training and developing support staff, creating a strong, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic team. I love to share practice widely, in person or via social media, we all have so much to learn from each other.
In my time as an Early Years Teacher I have enjoyed developing a child centred ethos, with a strong focus on being outside, and putting the child in the driver’s seat. I love the daily giggles and challenges being in Early Years creates, and the fact that you never quite know what each day will bring!